Last Friday on “Fantasy 411,” Cory Schwartz and I went back and forth a bit about Brian McCann and Russell Martin. Now, we were talking about fantasy value, and Martin’s green light on the bases tends to tip the balance to him in most formats for that game. That’s because stolen bases are generally divorced from their costs in fantasy, and so have disproportionate value. Even though McCann is likely to hit for a higher average and more power, Martin is probably a better fantasy catcher.

Of course, that’s only an interesting debate if you own one of them, or are considering trading for one of them. To me, the more interesting question is which is the better player now in real baseball, and who will be the better player over the next few years. Let’s take a run at comparing the two.

I am a long-time advocate of McCann’s going back to ’04, when the 20-year-old slugged .494 in Myrtle Beach back when Myrtle Beach was the Death Valley of minor league parks. Less than a year later, McCann was the Braves‘ starting catcher. In a chat session some time back, I mentioned that I would rather have McCann than Joe Mauer, owing to my doubts about Mauer’s long-term viability at catcher and McCann’s power edge over the Twins‘ icon. So, yeah, I’m a fan.

Martin didn’t have that one standout marker like McCann’s power at Myrtle Beach, but he has yet to have a bad performance as a professional. Drafted in 2002, Martin advanced at about a level a year, drawing more walks than he struck out in his minor league career, hitting for a respectable average and doubles power, and even running well for a catcher. Martin joined the Dodgers in May of 2006, after Dioner Navarro-a 22-year-old who had been playing well himself-suffered a bruised right wrist. Martin played so well that the Dodgers dealt Navarro to Tampa Bay before he returned from the DL. They were rewarded with a .282/.355/.436 performance that might have garnered more attention had the NL not seen one of the greatest rookie crops in MLB history-that helped Martin finish only ninth in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Now, Martin is almost exactly one year older than McCann, which gives the latter an advantage in a discussion of this nature. Let’s compare them at equivalent ages to get a sense of how each has developed. Throw out the age-18 year-Martin wasn’t a pro, while McCann was playing unimpressively in the Gulf Coast League. We’ll start with Martin’s draft year.

Age 19

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann    A  448  .290  .328  .462    7   4   24   73
Martin    R  149  .286  .396  .357    7   1   23   18

Martin, drafted in the 17th round that June, played well in his professional debut in the same GCL that McCann had struggled in a year prior. McCann moved up to the Sally League and showed very good power; given that he was 19, the so-so walk rate and K/BB were easily forgiven.

Age 20

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann   A+  416  .278  .332  .494    2   2   31   54
Martin  R/A  321  .276  .355  .437    8   3   35   37

This was the performance that put McCann on the radar, a .216 isolated power, including 35 doubles, at the age of 20 in the cavern that was Myrtle Beach; he cut his strikeout rate as well. At 20, Martin was brought along slowly by the Dodgers, but played well when given a chance, and made his way to the Sally League by the end of the year. That kind of control of the strike zone for a 20-year-old was terrific.

Age 21

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann AA/M  402  .272  .350  .436    3   4   28   48
Martin   A+  488  .250  .361  .421    9   5   72   54

Needing a catcher as Johnny Estrada wore down in the summer, as is their wont the Braves yanked McCann out of Double-A and elevated him to their lineup. He started very strong in the majors–.318/.400/.470 in his first 23 games-but wore down badly in his first long season, closing .255/.313/.363 after August 9. Still, reaching the majors and holding his own in his age-21 season marked McCann as a coming player, not just a prospect. Martin’s line at Vero Beach was superficially unimpressive, but considering his age and the Florida State League’s pitching bent, it was a good year. The 54/72 K/BB mark, in light of everything, is fantastic. With a growing reputation for defense, Martin moved from 17th-round pick to prospect in 2004.

It is important to note the difference between the two players at the age of 21. Brian McCann was the regular catcher for the Braves in the second half of his age-21 season, putting up a solid line; Martin was showing good skills in the Florida State League. That is an enormous gap, and anyone suggesting that Martin would pass McCann, knowing just that information, would have been laughed at.

Age 22

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann    M  492  .333  .388  .572    2   0   41   54
Martin   AA  505  .311  .430  .423   15   7   78   69

Martin’s batting average spiked in 2005, even though nothing fundamentally changed about his game, and in fact, his underlying indicators regressed a bit. The 60-point jump in average hid that, though, and Martin began receiving recognition as a top-tier catching prospect. At the same age, McCann was tearing up the National League, roping 58 extra-base hits, playing well against southpaws, and putting up a league-average performance defensively. A lack of walks-eight of his 41 were intentionals-was the only worrisome part of his record.

Age 23

Player   Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann     M  552  .270  .320  .452    0   1   35   74
Martin AAA/M  559  .284  .361  .434   10   7   58   68

This was the first age at which Martin outplayed McCann. Called up to replace Navarro in May of 2006, he quickly established himself as the long-term Dodgers starter, allowing the team to bolster their rotation by trading Navarro for Mark Hendrickson. (He’s tall.) At the same age, McCann lost the proverbial “one hit a week,” and while he was never in danger of losing playing time or his status, his 2007 was a disappointment. The trend in his walk rate-28 unintentionals, or about one a week-became a legitimate concern.

Age 24

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann    M  153  .309  .379  .574    0   0   16   11
Martin    M  620  .293  .374  .469   21   9   67   89

A monster first half put Martin on the National League All-Star team, the national radar, and enabled him to win Yadier Molina‘s Gold Glove award. Worked like a dray horse-1254 innings caught-he faded badly in September, one of a number of reasons the Dodgers did as well. The development of Martin’s power in his age-23 and -24 seasons offset a small loss in contact rate and walk rate, and while his defense was misjudged by Gold Glove voters, it was above average-he threw out a third of basestealers.

McCann seems to be consolidating the lessons of his last few seasons this year. He’s reversed his K/BB while hitting at the midpoint of his 2006 and 2007 seasons, with terrific power. He lacks Martin’s speed-not just in stealing bases, but running them-and he does not handle the running game as well as Martin does. On the other hand, he’s a better hitter, and the gap is so wide that it wipes out Martin’s edges. McCann’s power is the best tool either of the two has.

Age 25

Player  Lvl   PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO
McCann                      N/A
Martin    M  161  .302  .435  .419    3   3   30   22

McCann won’t be 25 until next February. In the meantime, Martin continues to improve, drawing walks at a career-high rate while sustaining the rest of his skills. With a manager who is prone to wearing out his best catcher-Joe Torre rode Jorge Posada very hard for a number of years-Martin will have to learn to sustain his performance late in the season.

Here are the MLB career stats for the two players.

Player    PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   BB   SO  Rate2   EqA   WARP
McCann  1401  .297  .354  .500    3   2  110  165     99  .287   15.6
Martin  1249  .290  .375  .450   34  17  142  168    107  .280   15.3

“Rate 2” is a measure of defensive performance in units of runs above or below average per 100 games. By this, McCann is -1 per 100 games, whereas Martin is +7.

To date, the two players have been almost dead even in value, Martin’s OBP and defense pulling him almost even with McCann’s power and playing time. However, in projecting the two going forward, the extra year of development McCann has coming is a significant edge in his favor. By age, Martin has only outplayed McCann once, at 23. While Martin’s age-24 season, his 2007, will be tough to beat, McCann is off to a fantastic start doing so, both in performance and in the underlying skills that add up to performance. If there’s a downside to McCann right now, it’s that he’s about the slowest non-Molina 24-year-old you’re likely to find. That’s not a huge deal, but it may affect how he develops, and his baserunning does cost the Braves a few runs.

For two position players of equal ability, taking the younger one is usually the safe call. I think Russell Martin has a broad skill set that is going to produce excellent performance, and the defensive edge he has on McCann adds up over time. However, McCann’s power is hard to pass up, and it’s not like he’s a bad defensive catcher. On the margins, I prefer to take a left-handed batter where I can, and the load that Martin is going to carry over the next couple of years may take its toll.

So I’m going to stand by my initial evaluation, that McCann is the choice over Martin. It’s very close, and this exercise has increased my appreciation for just how many things Martin does well. In the end, though, I’ll take the upside of McCann because of his power potential. Would I still rather have McCann instead of Joe Mauer? That’s a topic for another day.

Thank you for reading

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